July 27th, 2011

Slash Chords Made Simple

By Eric

A reader recently sent in this question:

I was wondering if you could explain to me how to interpret slash chords for soloing. It seems like different sources have conflicting information. Also, what would I do if I encountered a chord like C/Db, in which the top and bottom are not related diatonically?

Slash chord notation

One of the trickiest parts of dealing with slash chords is deciphering the notation. When you’re used to reading standard chord changes and you come across a slash chord, it can be confusing as to what is going on. If you’re like me, the first time you saw a slash chord you were probably asking yourself “Which chord is on top? Are both of the notes chords? How do you play over these sounds?

It’s a lot simpler than you think. Here’s the deal:

When you see a slash chord, the bottom note indicates a bass note and the top note indicates a triad in some inversion. For example, the chord symbol D/C implies a D triad over a C bass note:

Unless marked otherwise, the D is just a triad (with chord tones doubled or in inversion) and the C is just a bass note. It’s as straight forward as that.

Same chord, different name

Slash chord notation can also be used to express chords that we’re already familiar with in a different way. For example, an E/C slash chord can just as easily be expressed as CMaj7#5:

The chords look different on a piece of paper, but the resulting sound is exactly the same. The reason for this different notation may be to imply a specific voicing for the chordal instrument or, as a method for reharmonizing standard chord progressions.

Different degrees of dissonance

Not all slash chords are created equal.

Just because you see a slash chord, doesn’t necessarily mean that the chord is going to sound dissonant. In fact, some slash chords are surprisingly consonant. Take a look at the example below which outlines all of the basic slash chords (triads over a bass note) in the key of C. Try playing each chord on the piano to hear the distinct sound of every one.

In the same way that common chords (V7, half-diminished, Major 7, etc.) have distinct qualities that can be identified through practice, each slash chord has a unique sound that you can learn to hear.

As you can see from the above example, slash chords range from highly chromatic and dissonant to surprisingly diatonic. To become more familiar with the entire spectrum of slash chords, it can be helpful to separate them into three categories: Most Dissonant, Mildly Dissonant, and Consonant.

Most Dissonant:

These would include slash chords with no diatonic relation between the upper triad and the bass note. Logically, the most dissonant slash chords are a half-step or a tri-tone away from the bass note. In the key of C, these would be Db/C, B/C, and F#/C:

Learn to identify the sound of each of these highly dissonant slash chords. They may sound similar at first, but with some ear training practice, you’ll be able to distinguish the unique character of each one.

Mildly Dissonant:

Like the most dissonant slash chords, the mildly dissonant slash chords are not diatonic, however, they’re not quite as dissonant as the chords above. This type of slash chord shares a common chord tone with the key of the bass note key. For the chord A/C, both the A triad and the C tonality share the common pitch E. The mildly dissonant slash chords in the key of C are E/C, A/C, and Ab/C:


Consonant:

These include the slash chords that sound consonant like standard chords, but are notated differently. For example, the slash chord Eb/C sounds indistinguishable from a C-7 chord, and can even be notated as such. For the key of C, the consonant slash chords are D/C, Eb/C, F/C, G/C, and Bb/C:

If you happen to come across these particular slash chords in your solos, there is no need to think too hard – these are chords that you already are familiar with.

Options for improvisation

Utilizing the language you have

Since the majority of slash chords can also be notated as a standard chord (ex. Eb/C -> C-7) you can play the related chords, scales, and language that you would normally play over those standard chords. This would include all of consonant slash chords as well as the triad a third above the bass note (ex. E/C). For instance, on a G/C you can play the language that you have over CMaj7. Or for D/C, you can play language that you’ve developed over CMaj7#11 (C Lydian, B minor pentatonic).

Or, you can even play language that you’ve transcribed over D7. Each chord has numerous ways to apply the language that you are developing; try to develop a personal approach to these sounds.

Create your own scale

An easy way to navigate the most dissonant of slash chords can be to create a scale using the triad of the upper chord and the triad of the bass note. In the case of Db/C, you would form a scale using the notes of a Db triad and a C triad: C Db E F G Ab C.

The scale doesn’t occur naturally in a diatonic setting, it is synthetic. This would work equally well for any slash chord, not just the most dissonant. See what you can come up with in the practice room.

Implying harmonic structures

Because the sound of these chords are so open (a triad over a bass note), there are a wide range of options for improvising over slash chords. As well as playing the basic sound of the written notes of a slash chord, you can also imply a number of other harmonies.

Let’s clarify why this works.

Our ears naturally hear the lowest note played in a chord as the root; every note above the root note sounds in relation to this note. For example, D/C, C is the lowest note so it is the root, D is the 9th, F# is the #11, and A is the 13. This chord has no 3rd, 5th, or 7th.

How can you tell if this chord is major or minor? You can’t.

Moreover, how do you determine if the chord is dominant or has a major 7th? Again, you can’t.

You can’t tell because these notes are not part of the voicing. When these key notes are absent from a voicing you are free to imply a major or minor 3rd or 7th. Your ear will hear some of these implied sounds more naturally than others. For instance, in the case of D/C, we naturally hear a Lydian sound, C Major 7th #11.

But, because of the absence of the 3rd, 5th, and 7th, you could actually imply a minor, dominant, or a plethora of other sounds. So, you could assign an Eb (the minor 3rd) and a Bb (the minor 7th) to the 3rd and 7th, respectively. The implied sound in scale form is: C D Eb F# G A Bb C.

Your ear will take some time to get accustomed to hearing these slightly more esoteric sounds. Yes, they seem a bit crazy, but with practice they’re really not that complex, so give them a shot.

Other types of slash chords

The examples above cover the basic types of slash chords. However, these are not the only types of slash chords out there. Besides having just a triad over a bass note, you can have a minor, major, dominant, or half-diminished chord over a bass note. For instance, AMaj7/F or C7/A.

Furthermore, the bottom note of a slash chord doesn’t necessarily have to be just a bass note – it can be another triad as well. For example, a D triad over a C triad, which would be notated D/Ctr.

First master the basic slash chords and learn to identify each type based upon their degree of consonance. Keep in mind that there are other types of slash chords out there and check back soon for some more in-depth exploration on the world of slash chords.

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